Is it reasonable to refuse to teach the most disruptive children or does this breach their rights? A landmark High Court case brought by an excluded London boy could soon settle the matter. Clare Dean, Amanda Kelly and Karen Thornton report
TEACHERS this week declared zero tolerance of the worst behaviour in schools by going to the High Court to defend their right to refuse to teach violent and disruptive pupils.
A judge is expected to rule today on claims by a 16-year-old boy,who has been excluded twice from Bonus Pastor school in Lewisham, south London, that teachers were acting unlawfully by refusing to teach him.
The boy, currently being given one-to-one tuition at the school, wants to force the teachers to take him back into mainstream lessons in time for his GCSEs this summer.
He is using both employment law and the recently introduced Human Rights Act to bring the action against the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers and individual teachers.
The action comes as the Association of Teachers and Lecturers claimed a catalogue of appalling, violent incidents had emerged at a Midlands council's schools. Complaints to the authority's health and safety committee included a five-year-old who slapped a teacher in the face.
Other incidents included teachers being headbutted or punched in the face by pupils, and women members of staff being kicked to the ground or being grabbed around the throat. One in 10 of the 501 teachers polled in January for The TES by FDS International said that they had been assaulted by a pupil in the past year.
Mike Tomlinson, the chief inspector, highlighted increasing discipline problems in his annual report.
"Even a few pupils' disobedience and disruption can undermine the work of whole class," he warned.
Next week delegates at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' conference will be urged to back zero tolerance of violent and disruptive behaviour from children as young as three.
Philip Brooks, the union's Nottinghamshire branch secretary, will lead the call. He said: "Children need to learn there are limits and we need to make clear to children the limits in school.
"We don't need people saying that you must put up with things because a child needs an educational opportunity, when so many other children's opportunities are being diminished (by badly behaved children)."
The High Court action gives the debate at the ATL annual conference - the first of this year's big union events - added impetus.
Nigel de Gruchy, NASUWT general secretary, said: "It would be an absolute disaster for the profession if teaching unons could not take action in this way.
"It would be the biggest turn-off to recruitment if teachers could not ask for the protection of their unions in extreme circumstances."
The Government wants to reduce exclusions by a third by 2002 but a spokesman for the Department for Education and Employment insisted headteachers had the right to exclude.
He said that, only last August, independent exclusion appeals panels had been given clear guidance not to return violent pupils to schools.
A third of excluded pupils have been returned to school by appeals panels.
There are now 1,000 more places and 600 more staff in off-site pupil-referral units than in 1997 and 1,000 on-site units enabling disruptive pupils to be removed quickly from the classroom, the spokesman added.
Worsening behaviour is prompting more and more teachers to take action. In the first three months of this year alone, members of the NASUWT at 33 schools voted to refuse to teach disruptive individuals compared with an annual average of 50 schools.
Mr de Gruchy said: "We don't conduct ballots lightly and all of these cases involved extremely poor behaviour and some outright violence."
A GUIDE TO EXCLUSIONS
* A head can exclude a child for up to 45 school days in any academic year.
* If the total number of exclusions in any term adds up to less than six school days, parents have the right to put their case against the punishment to the governors in writing.
* If a pupil has been excluded for six or more days governors must invite parents to a meeting of their discipline committee, where the child may be reinstated.
* Parents have the right to put their case against exclusion in writing andor in person at a governors' discipline committee which must take place within 15 days of the exclusion. The committee can decide to reinstate the child.
* If governors do not overturn the exclusion, parents can appeal to an independent panel that must meet within 15 days of the parent lodging the appeal.
* The appeals panel makes the final decision on whether or not to reinstate the child.
* If the decision to exclude the child stands, the local education authority has a duty to ensure the child continues to receive an adequate education elsewhere.
* Schools that exclude youngsters are no longer penalised by having to include that child's GCSE results in their league tables * Schools are encouraged to take on excluded youngsters from other schools by the fact that the money allocated to that child travels with them to their new place of study.